Take 5 Things- How to ride your best dressage test

Updated: Aug 16, 2020

Welcome to the latest edition of our Take 5 Things series by EquiNation. This week we have Hannah Elizabeth Waugh talking to you about how to achieve the best marks you can in your dressage test.

About Hannah

Hannah is a qualified British Horse Society (BHS) instructor who has worked in Scottish racing industry as well as at Scotland's largest Equestrian Center. She is UKCC qualified and is working on becoming a listed British Dressage judge (list 5). Hannah studied for an Equine Management degree at Northumberland College and had ridden at numerous regional and national championships in showing and dressage. Most recently coming 2nd at the veteran British Dressage associated champs. Hannah regularly trains with list 1 and FEI riders as well as international dressage riders Debby Lush and Harry Payne and receives regular coaching from Joanna Wilkie, a list 4 British Dressage judge. 

Hannah training with an inexperienced horse

Riding a Dressage test

When I was asked to write this article, I had lots of ideas in mind. It is a HUGE subject which we could, and people have, written endlessly about. However I am keen to share some of the things I have learned with you, the key points that I stick by in my own training and judging.

First things first however, Dressage is hard, lets not be fooled there’s much more to it than riding a circle. It’s not just about riding an accurate test, that isn’t enough. Not only do we have to remember the test, we must also focus on our position, riding with our body and ensuring our horse is soft, supple and engaged. Oh and remembering to breath!

We also should address the elephant sized Valegro in the room, at one of our recent judges training days it’s was very plainly put to us, that we now have the 10 horse (scoring is 0-10) and Valegro is the best. Every horse now is being judged against him – whether we like it or not. Now I’m not suggesting we all go out and spend money we don’t have on trying to find the next Valegro. We can however, invest on rider and horse training and the good news is, that training is accessible to anyone and EquiNation will soon make it very easy for your to contact qualified trainers throughout the world.

Especially during our current lock down situation we can use the time to be more rider focuses and use the time to improve our own flexibility, strength and ability to use our aids independently without being on horse back.

So riding the dressage test is overall the easy bit, in theory, if your training is correct, you and your horse should manage to ride every single, movement, with somewhat ease. You’ll regularly hear people talking about training a high level at home example, if you’re competing Novice, then at home you should be training elementary. That way you horse is more than capable of the Novice movements.

So let's go back to basics, because let's face it they’re there for a reason and it’s drummed into us judges we are judging the quality of the horse movement and obedience/relaxation. Which is based on the scales of training and the 5 things that every good dressage test should have.

Hannah taking part in research

The 5 things that will get you those elusive dressage marks:

1. Rhythm and Relaxation – You can have a good rhythm without the horse being relaxed. Walking for a good 10-15 minutes is an essential part of my warm up to ensure the horse is relaxed and their joints/muscles having warmed up before I start my trot work. This is often why you’ll see horses on a walker before ridden sessions.

2. Suppleness – Once your horse is in a good rhythm, you need suppleness. Not just for suppleness over the back for the outline but for simple things like transitions, turning left or right at C. You can start working on suppleness from day one. Baby leg yields, leg yield circles, figures of 8.

3. Contact– Now we’re not talking short reins and clinging on here. We’re talking about riding the horse forward from your leg and from their active (not fast) hind leg, through their body into your hand, which will remain soft and supple. If the horse is accepting of the aids you will have a nice contact. You might see on test sheets “varying contact” perhaps while doing a transition. Or “against hand” this is usually when the horse throws his head up when you pull the rein on a downwards transition. The one I most commonly write is “lost connection” when the Free Walk movement is performed. Many riders just throw reins at the horse, and ride on the buckle end. Rather than keeping a contact on the rein and allowing the horse to seek the rein forward to keep the connection.

4. Implusion-  The increase of energy and thrust. Realistically we won’t be looking at impulsion until we see the above qualities in the horse. If you have the above then you can get true impulsion. We’re also unlikely to be looking for this at prelim and Novice. However, if you do have true impulsion at those levels then amazing!

5. Straightness – Here you need to think about improved alignment and balance. Don’t think straight and rigid. You want a soft bend round corners and circles, where the horses body is aligned. When cantering up the long side think straight not quarters in.

Oh and for those working at a higher level

6. Collection – The ultimate goal. Increased engagement, self carriage and lightness of the forehand. Collection doesn’t start to show in tests until elementary and still we aren’t looking to see the full collection you would see in GrandPrix work, but, at elementary a clear transition within the pace will suffice. We would expect self carriage when performing the “give and retake” at any level.

So look at these scales of training as the building blocks of training. Not just the overall training of the horse but when teaching the individual movements.

The scoring

Well you will have all seen those little numbers on your score sheets and hopefully with some constructive help comments to enable you to improve your training. Below are what the numbers actually mean to help you see how well you have mastered each movement, keeping in mind the scales and what the judges are looking for as mentioned above.

0 = not performed

1 = very bad 2 = bad 3 = fairly bad 4 = insufficient 5 = sufficient 6 = satisfactory 7 = fairly good 8 = good 9 = very good 10 = excellent

Top Tips to improve your dressage and riding

  • Preparation. Know the test, even if you have it read to you.

  • Work on your own fitness and flexibility – Book onto the online rider training classes, do home yoga & Pilates or even run round your garden. I use | Riders Core Training, and follow their online rider core training program, to develop a more deeper, secure, balanced and independent seat as well as improve flexibility and mobility. Through their articles and online video tutorials I really saw my riding and therefor my scores and performance improve

  • Get lessons. Regularly. There is no shame in having more than one coach too!

  • Show your coach your test sheet.

  • If you don’t understand something on your test sheet, speak to your judge (nicely!) we’re here to help!

  • Attend judge training – it’ll not only give you lots of hints on what the judge is looking for it’ll give you a good appreciation of the training we must undertake and how hard our job is.

  • Read these 2 books – The Building Blocks of Training and The successful Dressage Competitor – both by Debby Lush

  • Read the test sheets and find out where the marks lie i.e – Free walk on a long rein – the descriptors say “regularity, purpose, relaxation, freedom, straightness, evenness of contact & balance” You need to show us all those things in that one single movement. No wonder it’s often worth double marks!

  • Do test riding – get booked in with your local dressage governing body and do some test riding. I promise this is a great way to get arena ready.

Hannah competing at dressage

Written by: Hannah Elizabeth Waugh follow Hannah on the Riders core training Facebook or

her personal Facebook or on Inst agram

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